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Mediaeval People and Dante
THE best and worst of the Middle Ages was that they were what one writer calls full of "wolfish life and energy."
During those thousand years (500-1500), modern Europe was being made in the fiery furnace of war. At the end of the period, in our own island, the strong Tudor rule began. The first Tudor, a Welshman, married a daughter to a Scottish king, and this in time led to that union of "Great Britain" which had been the aim of Edward I, our greatest mediaeval king. The Swiss, people of the hills like the Welsh and Scots, won independence from their neighbours in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
In France, Joan of Arc awakened the spirit of patriotism, and helped to save her country from the English kings and soldiers; but the Hundred Years' War was followed by the beginnings of absolute rule under a king aptly known as "the universal spider" -- namely, Louis XI, of whom we read in Scott's Quentin Durward.
In Spain, a long Crusade of seven centuries ended with the capture of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold, in the year of the discovery of a New World (1492).
Germany and Italy, however, owing largely to their connection with the Holy Roman Empire, remained much divided long after the Middle Ages -- and the New Learning was born in the very heart of feudal Italy.
Mediaeval people created universities and colleges, craft and merchant guilds, law courts and juries, and parliaments. They built castles and manor-houses, cathedrals and monasteries. They founded the greatness of cities like London and Paris, Rouen and Bruges, Florence and Venice. They showed their delight in the magic of words and the formation of national languages (Dante in Italy, Chaucer in England, etc.). There is, indeed, scarcely a movement now visible in the current of modern life which cannot be traced back to the Middle Ages.
Yet there were great differences between the mediaeval and the modern man. The mediaeval man had "lived enveloped in a cowl. He had not seen the beauty of the world. Like St. Bernard travelling along the shores of Lake Leman, and noticing neither the azure of the waters, or the luxuriance of the vines, nor the radiance of the moantains, with their robe of sun and snow, but bending a thought-burdened forehead over the neck of his mule -- even like this monk, humanity had passed, a careful pilgrim, intent on the terrors of sin, death, and judgment, along the highways of the world, and had scarcely known that they were sight-worthy, or that life is a blessing."
Then gradually there came in Europe that great awakening of new life known as the Renaissance or Re-birth -- the revival of joy in life and nature, of curiosity and inquiry, and of learning. The beginnings of this great change date back to the Middle Ages. The Crusades had brought Europe together and face to face with the mysteries and learning of the East. "Mankind had ceased to be locally bound to a few clearings of the earth. It had begun to understand the breadth and variety of the planet, and the infinite resources of its products."
Again, in the poet Dante and the painter Giotto, both natives of Italy, in the man of science Friar Bacon of Oxford, we may hear" the trumpet which summoned the Middle Ages into the modern world.
Dante ranks with Homer and Shakespeare, the world's greatest poets. He lived (1265-1321) in an age of quarrelsome popes and cruel barons, of lazy monks and haughty bishops, of ignorant and superstitious people. And he wrote his "marvellous, mystical, and unfathomable song" in poverty, exile, and grief; but he wrote like an inspired prophet of old, vindicating the ways of God to man, and preparing the way for a new age. His countenance, so austere and thoughtful, impresses all beholders with a sort of inborn greatness; his lip, in Giotto's portrait, is curled disdainfully, as if he lived among fools and knaves.
As the Middle Ages passed away, the men of Europe, like the Greeks of old, once again took delight in scientific experiment, in art, and in poetry. And though every country played its part in the awakening, Italy was the well-spring from which the other countries drew life. In its wealthy cities men collected and studied the manuscripts of ancient Greece and Rome, and so picked up the threads of the Greeks and continued their work.
The biographer of a famous prince of Florence tells how he collected for the prince "forty-five writers, and finished two hundred volumes in twenty-two months, and the prince lived to see his new library completed, and the cataloguing and arranging of the books, in all of which he took great pleasure." And this was before the days of printing.